How Much Does Your Boss Know?

How Much Does Your Boss Know?
As the HP Scandal Shows, Some Employers Have Gotten Aggressive in the Search for Employee Information

By Stephen Viscusi

Sept. 12, 2006 — It's funny that in today's high-tech world, with everyone afraid of losing their identities, something as personal as a phone call can be given to a stranger.

Yes, a phone call.

Most telephone companies — wireless and land lines alike — will give a person access to your records, with as little as the last four digits of your Social Security number needed for identification purposes.

Moreover, guess what? Your employer already has that information. So does your husband or wife. So any of those people could theoretically access your phone records whenever they wanted.

Can you imagine what someone could learn from that? Anyone could see whether you had made a phone call to inquire about a new job or a specialized doctor, or, even worse, to cheat on your spouse.

Is that the kind of information you want your employer to have?

The technique of gathering this information is a form of "pretexting" — an investigative technique in which someone poses as another person to gain private information — and it can occur at the highest levels of American business.

A pretexting scandal swirled around Hewlett-Packard recently after the company's board of directors hired an investigative firm to research board members.

One board member quit in protest, and the U.S. Attorney's Office is now probing whether the search was legal.

The good news is that this type of information gathering can be prevented with a low-tech solution, and you can take care of it today.

As soon as you stop reading this, pick up the phone, call your phone company and your wireless provider, and tell the representative you would like to have a "password" put on your account, to restrict access.

Once you do this, the next time you call for billing information the representative will see your account is "password blocked" and ask you for the password before they give out any information.

Most credit-card companies will also provide this extra level of security for you, and it is free.

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Keep in Private and Keep Your Job

That's not the only way your employer can check up on you.

Remember, anything you do at work essentially belongs to your employer.

Work is not a democracy, and more and more companies are snooping to see what you do online, while at work.

A recent study found that 32 percent of employers had fired an employee in the last 12 months for spending too much time online.

That includes popular sites like MySpace, Facebook and Friendster.

Yes, if you are on one of those sites at work too much, you might as well put "unemployed" as your occupation, because soon enough you will be.

Did you know that 76 percent of employers admitted to snooping on employees who surfed the Web?

Most bosses do not care what you do online when you're at home. But most want nothing personal done on the computers they own and monitor.

Even small companies spy on employees, and the easiest, no-hassle way to handle the issue is to fire the person.

That's legal, too, as long as the employee handbook notes, as most do, that the boss may be watching and that it is off limits to use the computer for personal Web sites.

As far as the boss is concerned, regardless of the Web sites you visit, you are stealing company time when you surf the Web for anything unrelated to business.

So be aware that what you're doing online is probably being watched. And be aware it could cost you your job.

Stephen Viscusi is a workplace author, columnist, and radio talk-show host